Former inmates at a Virginia women’s prison have spoken out about a culture of segregation in which lesbians, and those believed to be lesbian, were specifically housed in a separate area.

Masculine-looking women with short hair and those who wore loose-fitting clothes were sent to what was known as the “butch wing”, or “stud wing” at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

The measures were taken in a bid to split up same-sex relationships between prisoners and stop sexual activity. However some straight women were also sent to the wing, based solely on their appearance, the Associated Press investigation showed.

Former prisoners have given interviews and written statements about their time in custody at Fluvanna. One inmate wrote: “This institution is run by homophobes”.

Former guard William Drumheller that the plan to separate lesbians from the rest of prison society was the brainchild of Building 5 manager Timothy Back. “I heard him say, ‘We’re going to break up some of these relationships, start a boys wing, and we’re going to take all these studs and put them together and see how they like looking at nothing but each other all day instead of their girlfriends,” Drumheller said.

Two other guards, said the plan to segregate certain inmates was common knowledge amongst guards. Yet Barbara Wheeler, one of the correctional centre’s wardens. denied that discriminatory separation had taken place.

The women were subject to further humiliation as staff reportedly referred to them as “the little boys”. The separation continued during meal times, as the group was taken to the cafeteria at different times from the rest of the prison population to ensure that they avoided any contact.

Civil rights advocates condemned the way the prison treated inmates for “looking gay” as unconstitutional punishment.

In May the LGBT Prisoner Safety Act, designed to protect inmates from violence, was passed by California’s state assembly. It was supported by gay rights groups who say LGBT prisoners are more likely to face abuse. Passing the bill was a step towards allowing more male-to-female trans people to be housed in women’s prisons.

A study by the University of California found that almost 60 per cent of trans prisoners being housed in male prisons have been sexually assaulted, a rate 13 times higher than the average, and were less likely to receive medical attention from guards than other inmates.

California state assembly member Tom Ammiano said: “All people deserve basic protections – including those serving time in our state prisons. No prisoner should fear for his or her life or be the target of abuse because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.”